There is no word for emergency after the body
wilts. Creeping willow, pillowsheet, last lamp
left lit / before the blizzard’s heart beats out—
the ghost who walks west from the lightning
field walks above the frost.
Disclosed secrets, interrupted silences, fabricated identities, and the (im)possiblity of truth-telling animate the new issue of Guernica.
Rabih Alameddine, the Lebanese-American author who disdains hyphens, tells Dwyer Murphy that when we construct anything like the truth of another culture from the work of one author “we’re in deep shit.”
Gary Shteyngart talks with Michael Hafford about what it was like to step out from behind the distraction of humor in his new memoir, Little Failure. “You realize that whatever myths you had built up about yourself overcoming adversity and turning into a great person are not exactly true.”
In an excerpt from Kirsten Weld’s Paper Cadavers, Guatemalans work to excavate the “largest collection of secret state documents in Latin American history.” Volunteers sort through decaying mountains of paperwork after four decades of silence and civil war to learn how their friends and loved ones were “disappeared.”
Author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, too, speaks of memory and destructive silence, which has kept her native Kenya from reckoning with its past. “Even if we want to eradicate our ghosts, our dead, our murdered, somebody remembers,” she tells Michael Halmshaw.
From Polish director Karolina Breguła comes The Offence, a film about the “paradoxical” liberties of censorship in a Hungarian town. Poets Simon Perchik and Sarah Crossland look to the body for answers.
Plus new fiction from Alexi Zentner that mines the familial landscape of King Lear from a lobster boat in the cold waters off New England. And, translated into English for the first time, Antonio Tabucchi’s story of an aging spy who ambles through his life’s love, loss, and deception.
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- Guernica: What do you mean when you say that Americans don’t engage with the world?
- Rabih Alameddine: We pick one writer from every country and think that’s what that literature is. Colombia—Gabriel García Márquez—yay! Chile—Roberto Bolaño—yay! One writer from each country begins to represent an entire worldview. I should tell you now, I represent all Lebanese. No—all Arabs. Read my books and you’ll understand what all Arabs are like. [a thoughtful pause] If I am supposed to represent the Arabs, we’re in deep shit.
Inspired by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s 1937 novel Ferdydurke, in which obsession with youth and the new takes an absurd and unnatural form, The Offence is a short story in the form of a film. The narrative follows a chorus of characters in a provincial Hungarian town, obsessed with tradition and fearful of the unknown. The unassuming hero of the story is a town official who decides to rescue his fellow citizens from their backwardness by an unusual method: with an uncanny understanding of the human desire for perversion, he forces progress through unnecessary prohibitions and restrictions that he knows will be broken. The film is about the paradoxically liberating effects of censorship, capable of attuning society to its needs and desires.
Yes, if he thought about it he was hungry, that morning he’d had only an Italian cappuccino, maybe because the evening before he’d gone overboard. He’d eaten oysters at the Paris Bar, at this point he went to the Paris Bar almost every evening, when he wasn’t alternating with other chic restaurants. Don’t you get it, knucklehead, he murmured, you acted like a Franciscan your whole life, I on the other hand have a ball at chic restaurants, I eat oysters every night, and you know why?, because we aren’t eternal, my dear, you said so yourself, and so it’s worth eating oysters.
As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not doing it honestly, then why are you writing a memoir? Stick to fiction.
Even people who are new at work, they come with photos of their husbands, the same way I have a photo of my brother, and they tell me, ‘I want to find out what happened to my husband.
When the country did detonate after its disputed 2007 elections, and all the pent-up unacknowledged rage exploded, and we shocked ourselves in our madness so that it required the intervention of outside friends like Kofi Annan and Benjamin Mkapa to calm Kenya down, I went down to one of the epicenters of the national chaos with a group of friends—other writers—led by Binyavanga Wainaina. In retrospect, it was very naïve of us, but as Binya put it when he showed up in front of my house in a taxi loaded with other bemused Kenyan writers, we did not have a fucking choice.
There we met our displaced compatriots, and some of those doing the displacing, the shielding, the hiding. We wandered as witnesses, eavesdroppers. We looked, we saw, we touched hands with our frightened, wondering people. Mostly we listened, and were struck by the explanations, their very old roots, ancient grievances that in our now-established Kenyan manner were very swiftly buried in shallow graves. This whole experience changed me and changed the story that finally became Dust. For one, I could attach the memory of a hundred real haunted gazes to characters in the story.
- Guernica: Did you feel any hesitation in writing from a woman’s perspective, a worry that readers or critics would be skeptical of the project?
- Rabih Alameddine: I’m surprised how often I’m asked about being a man with a woman narrator. I’m not the first, nor will I be the last. It’s been done forever, but we seem to forget that. The whole notion of “write what you know” is not just boring, but wrong. Lately it seems like every novel has to be a memoir. I’m a boring person, but I’m a writer with a relatively vivid imagination. And when people ask me about how I find the voice of a woman, I tell them that my life is run by women. I’m very close to my family—my mother and my sisters. In some ways too close. When I’m around them, we can’t be separated, and then I want to kill them and they feel the same about me, in a good way. We interfere with each other’s lives regularly and I like that. There’s my agent, Nicole Aragi, too. I jokingly call her my dominatrix. If I don’t do what she says, she just calls my mom.
We’re named the Kings, and we’re the closest thing to royalty on Loosewood Island. The story goes that when the first of the Kings, Brumfitt Kings, the painter, came to Loosewood Island near on three hundred years ago, the waters were so thick with lobster that Brumfitt only had to sail half of the way from Ireland: he walked the rest of the way, the lobsters making a road with their backs. He was like Jesus walking on the water, except there was no bread to be found anywhere.